22 May, 2015 22 May, 2015

Reunion’s Shark Saga

Davy Stolk gives us a first-hand account of what the shark problem in Reunion has done to surfers, and people in the surf industry on this beautiful Indian Ocean island.

Davy Stolk, formerly of Cape Town and now residing in Reunion.

Zigzag: As a surf business owner, what percentage do you think trade has slowed down since the shark problem began?
Davy: Since July 2012, I have lost 45% of my turnover. Basically, I am doing the turnover that the store was doing when we bought it in 2000 – 14 years down the drain.

Do people still buy surfboards?
You’d have to ask Mickey Rat (local board manufacturer) that question. I haven’t restocked for the past four years. But actually, at the end of the year, Mickey did say that he had quite a few orders. But then again that was before the last spate of attacks. As Joe, my good old Aussie mate just said this morning, ‘the movie Jaws wouldn’t have dreamed up what has gone down in reality here.’

Reunion is a surfer’s dream, if sharks don’t give you nightmares.

I mean imagine one of the first attacks on the surfer who had just arrived with his wife, went for a quick evening session, and lost his leg. Then the attack on the honeymooner beginner who paddled out at midday in front of his wife and got attacked and killed in front of her. Then that of my dear friend Matthieu Schiller, who was bodyboarding with his mates at three in the afternoon and had his legs taken off. Then, when his friends tried to pull him onto a board, the shark came up and took the rest of him. Then the girl with her boyfriend on Valentines Day who was attacked and killed five meters out after going for a quick splash at sunset. Then the 15 year-old sisters swimming together three meters off the beach and she got chopped in half. Then, the story of the dog that was swimming for a log. It gets back on the beach only to be taken out on the fucking beach. Then we come to young Elio – writing a note to his mom that he would only surf the protected beach at Boucan with his mates, but due to no waves, and c’mon we have all been there, the mates going, “ay Les Aigrettes is going off and we won’t risk nothing. Water’s clean, and it’s only 9 o’clock, lets go get a few.” EISSHHHHHH, as we say in Africa when events shock us. Not to speak of Alex Fabien (killed), and one of my best friends Fabien (maimed) – the list goes on.

How has this affected you personally?
Yes indeed. All of this has impacted on me in an extremely personal way. Not only have I lost a few good friends and others attacked, but I have also come very close to bankruptcy. Going surfing has become a complete lottery ticket, just hoping that for once it’s not your number coming up.

Eyes on the prize at St Leu.

In the last article I read in the paper CHARC – the Government Funded Research Unit – estimated the shark population around the island of zambezis and tigers to be around 1200. To put it in perspective, they estimate a population of around 500 great whites from Hermanus to Cape Point, and they have a shit load of seals to eat. Lastly, while my wife is the coolest, my son of 4 and a 1/2 years is obsessed with sharks, even telling me how he will karate chop them if they try and attack, and luckily for our family she pays the bills. So yes a rather personal affair.

Of the surf shops that you are familiar with, how many have shut their doors?
Thus far the shop in Etang Salé has closed, and that of my ex-partners’ in St Gilles is in a bankruptcy protection claim. The others are barely making out, but have all converted to skateboarding. I don’t know how Mickey Rat is surviving, but good on him he is still there. As for me, I’m on my knees.

What about surf schools? How many of them have shut down?
All 13 of the surf schools on the island have shut down, and one or two have converted to SUP lessons in the lagoon at La Saline and L’Hermitage.

Although business isn’t great, Davy’s Surf Shop still stocks all the essentials.

What about the hostels and hotels geared for surfers and surfing?
The hotel industry has been particularly hard hit with the loss of paying tourists around a 20% drop. Just reading an article sent to me by my best friend, who is the commercial director for the Exsel group of hotels, they reckon that the local economy lost 33 million Euros in the first half of 2014 due to the shark crisis alone, and put the figure at 48 million Euros lost between 2011 and 2013. Imagine what that would do to Cape St Francis and JBay over the same period and with the same amount of attacks? It is roughly the same distance of coastline affected as over here, ie. around 20kms.

As a surfer, at what stage are you personally going to go, hang on, this is now a bit too hectic?
(Laughs) Not being facetious, melodramatic or fatalistic, I reckon it will be too late for me to pose that question.

Does a place like St Leu appear quieter, with there being fewer surfers around?
No. Honestly, St Leu is actually going off at the moment having become a major hub for good bars and music on the beach, and still a lot of guys go surfing when it is cooking (and why the fuck wouldn’t ya, as my good dead friend Maggot would’ve said). Also, there are heaps of other sports like paragliding, climbing, diving, etc. So it really is not deserted.

The stakes are higher, but St Leu is as rippable as ever.

Do foreign surfers still come visit, or has that totally stopped now?
(laughs) Basically, apart from Alan Van Gysen and Brendon Gibbons, who couldn’t change their tickets and pulled in and got cooking surf with only a couple of locals at St Pierre, who were super stoked to have them in the water. To me, as gnarly as it is, it still only measures up to any point break on the wild coast.

What do you think will rectify this terrible situation?
Protecting the beaches! As I said up to now, the French authorities apart from DSK have proved that they couldn’t organise a gangbang in a brothel. It’s a fucking shambles and a shame.

Having said that, what do you honestly think the future holds?
To me the authorities have taken four years to get the gist of the amplitude of the problem, and looks like they have finally committed to resolving it. The government has just voted a budget of a million Euros a year to Reunion to protect its beaches and they have already put up 10 million Euros to get the protection started. St Paul, St Pierre, St Leu and St Benoit and Etang Salé have put out tenders to protect their beaches with a budget from the region of 10 million Euros, which will be shared between them. Basically they are looking at putting in smart drumlines and deep sea drumlines, while also looking at backing this up with the shark vigils, and eventually looking at and budgeting for possibly the use of the following systems depending on the outcome of current studies like shark nets, drones, shark spotters and electrical barriers, which will be in place by the end of the year.

Davey Weare in Reunion in 2010, before the problems began.

Concerning shark fishing in the reserve, it is not an open license but has been reserved for a few accredited professionals to cull up to a maximum of 80 bull sharks a year. The fishing of sharks for commercial purposes is still forbidden.

But hey, given the propensity of the French for eroticism, who knows, they may eventually get a gangbang in a brothel together and then we will all be happy chappies, figuratively speaking of course. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Honestly, I do believe that they will get their shit together and protect the beaches. This thing has just gone too far for them not to.

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